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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI's donkey keeps watch over her flock

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- April 9, 2004 --Mary had a little lamb, but that pales in comparison to the responsibility of Bonnie, the University of Rhode Island's guard donkey. Bonnie keeps watch over 25 lambs, 20 sheep, including one about to give birth, and a ram that occasionally comes calling.

The 7-year-old jenny (female donkey) calmly stands guard in the barnyard amidst the bleating, bellowing, and romping lambs at URIís Peckham Farm while their nursing mothers bleat and bellow in reply. URI uses the farm and its animals for hands-on teaching of its animal science students.

"She's round-the-clock protection," says Katherine Petersson of Douglas, Mass., a lecturer in URIís Fisheries, Animal, and Veterinary Science Department, who found Bonnie while browsing the Internet in search of a way to protect the sheep. She discovered that The Rosefield, a farm, located just outside Pittsburgh, Pa., trains and sells guardian donkeys.

Protecting URI's flock became the number one priority last October when dogs discovered a way to bypass the old electric fence and enter the pasture. The dogs killed one of the sheep and seriously harmed six others, including one that later had to be euthanized. All 19 sheep in the pasture, except one, had multiple puncture wounds.

Although all donkeys have a herding instinct and a natural aversion to canines, not all of them make good guardians. The sheep and the donkey must accept each other as "flock mates."

Bonnie arrived at Peckham Farm around Christmas and everyone crossed their fingers. "At first, the sheep were upset," recalls Petersson. "They were kinda saying, 'What on earth have you done to us'?"

Bonnie quickly established the pecking order. She was the boss. After swishing her tail, pinning back her not so petite ears, and lifting a threatening leg, the sheep quickly became gentle as lambs.

"When those ears go back, the sheep know one of their own is in trouble," says Petersson. "When Bonnie feeds and feels that she needs more space she simply pins her ears back and shakes her head at the offending sheep. The offender knows to move or else. She's like a bossy sibling -- with teeth."
If a sheep strays in the pasture, Bonnie will herd it back to the flock. If the sheep give Bonnie any lip, she will reinforce with a quick nip.

Bonnie was tested again in March when the lambs were born. No one knew how she would react to the newborns. She passed with flying colors, accepting the lambs as part of the family. Petersson reports that when Bonnie lies down in the pasture, the lambs will sometimes come up to her and sniff. If they get too pesky, Bonnie pins her ears back and the lambs scatter.

A couple of weeks ago, Dave Marshall, farm manager at Peckham, spotted a coyote walking the fence line. Bonnie immediately started braying loudly and stomping her foot. The coyote high-tailed it.

Coyotes are opportunists and know enough not to get close to an irate donkey, according to Marshall. Domestic dogs, however, donít get detoured quickly. If a dog got close to the sheep, Bonnie would confront it and chase it. If the dog didnít retreat, Bonnie would attack it by biting with her powerful jaws, raising on her hind legs and striking it with both front feet or swing around and land blows with her back feet. The blows would either injure or kill the dog.

While Bonnie is playing mother hen to her flock, she is pregnant and will give birth in July. "She adds a lot of color," says Petersson. "And we can all sleep at night."